The Focolare and Ecumenism
When the Jesuit ecumenist, Charles Boyer, asked Chiara Lubich in 1950 if the Focolare Movement she had founded was working in the ecumenical field, she answered, “No.” Forty-five years later in Trent, Italy, John Paul II praised the Focolare’s ecumenical work, alluding to the contrast between Chiara’s fruitful charism born there in 1943 and the counter-reformation efforts of the Council in the same city four centuries earlier. Chiara occasionally referred to her simple, sincere 1950 denial to demonstrate that the Focolare and its blossoming ecumenical work were from God; they did not stem from any human plans. The movement opened its official international ecumenical center, ‘Centro Uno,’ in Rome in 1961.
Episcopalians and Anglicans have embraced the Focolare way of life in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, South Africa and elsewhere. Since the 60’s each Anglican primate has welcomed and encouraged this. German Lutheran nuns and pastors were surprised to discover Catholics actually living the Gospel when they encountered the Focolare in early 1961.
This new friendship blossomed into the founding of a little ecumenical town, Ottmaring, outside Augsburg, Germany, where Lutherans and Catholics have been living this Gospel spirituality together since 1968. Today, Ottmaring is one of about thirty Focolare towns worldwide, including Mariapolis Luminosa in Hyde Park, NY.
Some of the key participants in the dialogue leading to the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification were influenced by this spirituality as well. After the great Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras came to know the Focolare in Istanbul in the late 60’s, he personally met with Chiara a number of times, and appreciated her charism so much that he considered himself a humble member of her movement. His successor, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, was one of the last to visit Chiara in a Rome hospital before her 2008 death.
Aside from the important theological and ecumenical insights stemming from the teachings of the Focolare charism, practically implementing the spirituality also fosters deep relationships of communion, creating a fabric of rapports across denominational boundaries, preparing the way for full unity among the Christian traditions. Although the Focolare was officially recognized by the Catholic Church in 1961, members from about 300 different ecclesial communions actually contribute to its life. Speaking at the European Ecumenical Assembly in Graz in 1997, Chiara stressed this grassroots ecumenism which she characterized as ecumenism of life; it will facilitate reception of the unity to be found and affirmed by official ecumenists who practice the ecumenism of charity, prayer and theology.
Chiara’s spirituality is based on Matthew 18:20, “Where two or more are gathered in my name…” As she and her first companions lived the Gospel in war-torn Trent, they discovered an unprecedented joy, fire and light when they radically lived Jesus’ New Commandment of mutual love (John 13:34). From these effects they understood that Jesus himself was present among them in these circumstances, with this mutual love as a condition.
Another effect of this presence was unity among those participating; Jesus himself united them. It was, and still is, an experience with a mystical dimension giving those who live it a foretaste of the full unity that awaits us. They existentially understand Jesus’ Trinitarian reference, “…you in me and I in you...” (John 14:20). And since Jesus’ promised presence was offered to any of his followers, not just Catholics or members of the Reformed communions or the Anabaptist tradition, this can be lived together by any and all Christians.
While it is a foretaste of full unity on one hand, it also sharpens the focus on the remaining disunity, the theological ‘not yet’. Precisely for the sake of ultimate, full unity among Christian traditions in fact, each person is urged to faithfully live within his/her own respective tradition, thereby renewing their own ecclesial communion. For example, Catholics follow the magisterium’s teaching on intercommunion, and this can be a source of suffering for everyone; but it is a suffering which is embraced out of love, love for Jesus himself who lived through the ultimate suffering and disunity ("My God, my God - why have you forsaken me?" Matthew 27:46). Jesus showed the way to full unity by loving through and beyond disunity.
Chiara and her friends were so impressed by the experience of Jesus’ collective presence that they promised to constantly love one another, giving mutual love precedence to everything else, even family life, work, prayer (1 Peter 4:8). All these other things acquired value in as much as they were lived with Jesus in their midst. Without Jesus’ presence, these things were as vain as leaves falling from trees. But everything lived with Jesus in the midst, even simple rapport at work, in the neighborhood or in the family, acquired immense value; these particular events remain in eternity.
Like the two disciples walking to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), Jesus in our midst also opens our eyes to the Scriptures and helps us to understand how to live the Christian life together in particular circumstances, as he lives it here and now through us. It is an itinerary leading us beyond Emmaus to the fulfillment of Jesus’ priestly prayer for the unity of everyone (John 17:21). And this unity is the purpose of the Focolare Movement. Contributing to the fulfillment of Jesus prayer is the Focolare’s reason for being.
William Neu has lived in Focolare communities in the U.S. over the last 40 years, holding various positions of responsibility in the movement's ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. He is currently studying for a PhD in Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.